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Cultural EvolutionSociety, Technology, Language, and Religion$
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Peter J. Richerson and Morton H. Christiansen

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780262019750

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262019750.001.0001

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Language Acquisition as a Cultural Process

Language Acquisition as a Cultural Process

(p.269) 14 Language Acquisition as a Cultural Process
Cultural Evolution

Elena Lieven

The MIT Press

It is possible to identify three elements involved in the phylogenetic and ontogenetic development of the human language ability: (a) specific speech-related abilities, (b) cognitive abilities related to signification, symbol manipulation, and categorization, and (c) communicative or interactive abilities. This chapter suggests that although all three elements have a universal basis in evolution and development, they are affected at a rapid pace by the culture within which the infant develops. During the first year of life, infants become increasingly sensitive to the particularities of the ambient language(s). Their babbling shows both the restrictions on vocal production caused by the slow maturation of the speech apparatus and the influence of the language they are hearing. By 12 months of age, potentially primate-wide discriminations between types of events have given way to categorizations that reflect those of the language that the child is learning. Despite differences across cultures in both the ideologies and practices of child rearing, the onset of shared intentionality occurs at around nine months of age and does not seem to be affected by cultural differences in ways of interacting with babies. Once infants start to comprehend and produce language, there is a great deal of evidence, mainly from research in modern industrial cultures, that language development is influenced by quantitative and qualitative aspects of the ways in which children are spoken to. The chapter concludes with questions concerning the role of language in socialization and the relationship between concepts of socialization and culture. Published in the Strungmann Forum Reports Series.

Keywords:   language acquisition, signification, symbol manipulation, categorization, communicative or interactive abilities, child-rearing, shared intentionality, socialization

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